1138: Orientation by Cindy Juyoung Ok

202406012 Slowdown

1138: Orientation by Cindy Juyoung Ok


I’m Major Jackson, and this is The Slowdown.

I once asked three-year-old Romie to draw a picture of a tree. I expected him to reach for a brown crayon from his Crayola box, to draw a trunk whose parallel lines arced up and away, and then, to reach for an emerald crayon to make a crown of leaves like a green afro.

Instead, he grabbed a dandelion-colored crayon and began making a sun. He scribbled circles over and over until it shone bright. Then, with great concentration he peered into the box and chose a black crayon. He drew a line from one side of the page to the other, put the crayon down, and said, “Done.”

I said, “Romie, where’s the tree?” He said, “Below the ground, Daddy. It’s a seed, and the sun is taking care of it.” I had to orient myself, in that moment, toward the consciousness of my toddler son. It was liberating.

I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”

Every poem is a bridge between nature and us, in that what lies hidden, what is below, is somehow familiar, and brought to consciousness. The forms of poems, like Romie’s tree, project meaning, transmit what it signifies. Even though I could not see his tree, he gestured toward it by drawing that collaborative work between the soil and sunlight. Thanks to the force of symbolism and metaphor he connected, frankly, all that we associate with a tree: fruit, roots, interconnectedness, life.

Today’s poem reminds me of the search for new forms and images to give expression to the substance of life as it is lived in our time, that possibly, too, even our forms have an expiration date.

by Cindy Juyoung Ok

The stars are less bright
than the pictures, I report
to a friend who, after nine

years in prison, is still
shocked that when we were ten
I had not seen a cow.

When he asks me,
tenant of the language
in which I meet him, what

the outside is like, I offer
reluctant lines: the birds
sound more and more

like car alarms, and some have
begged for one that runs in 
a minor key, but 

quiet is so expensive
in this calendar, which runs 
on a logic of paradise,

i.e., of grief. Attitudes
toward bells are proportional
to proximity, as public music

relies on the worship
of intimacy, and a belief
in the work: to foil

regret, to regard cement
as liquid, to fade eventually 
well. In love, the teenagers’

eyes widen and their 
grammar shrinks. Form outlives
us, but barely.

“Orientation” by Cindy Juyoung Ok from WARD TOWARD © 2024 Cindy Juyoung Ok. Used by permission of Yale University Press.